Wednesday, May 02, 2007

From Watergate to Gonzalesgate: Accountability

April 27 on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television saw an all-too-short and much-too-rare analysis of the ever-shifting internal and external influences that affect policy formulation and program implementation of the sitting U.S. administration.

Should you have missed the program – “Bill Moyer’s Journal” for Friday, April 27 –the segment of interest comes near the beginning, and it is so trenchant that a number of Internet sites carry it on-line. Moyers, discusses political developments of the week just ended with Jon Stewart, host of the mock news program “The Daily Show” carried on Comedy Central.

The specific event was the testimony of the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, before the Senate Judiciary Committee April 19 relative to the role Gonzales played in the December 2006 firing of eight federal prosecutors. The public record, including sworn testimony from current and past Justice Department officials was full of contradictions and missing documents. The entire procedure suggested that the choice of these eight (of 93 nationwide) and the timing of the dismissals was quite intentional, political, and possibly done in some cases because the prosecutors were investigating allies of the Bush White House. If the dismissals were timed to occur when Congress was in recess, the Senate would not have the opportunity to review the qualifications of the new prosecutors and render its “advice and consent.”

Gonzales had at least three weeks notice of the hearing. \Despite all that time available to search records and calendars, the Attorney General, under oath, responded 74 times – 45 times before the committee broke for lunch – with some version of “I don't recall.” (Alternate counts say 64 “I don’t know” over five hours – either way, quite a few.) Were that not frustrating enough for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Gonzales went out of his way to assert and reassert: “I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred.”

Stewart’s satiric streak was on display when Moyer’s ran an excerpt from the April 19 “Daily Show” broadcast. But the real depth of Stewart’s insight was his assertion on Moyer’s program that Bush administration officials seem to believe that the American public gets one chance every four years to “say its piece.” Once an election is over, the public – as well as the Congress – ought to simply slip into the background scenery of democracy and leave the executive branch run the country.

Neither Moyers nor Stewart claims that the policy the Bush White House is following is fundamentally different from attempts by previous administrations to control what information reaches the public or to conceal events that might be embarrassing or even on the margins of illegality. But they both seem of the view that the Bush administration has been more intent, more aggressive than other recent administrations in refusing to provide records and send officials to testify before Congress.

By chance, PBS also broadcast on April 28 the classic film “All the President’s Men,” the Hollywood version of the Nixon administration Watergate scandal. The film was followed by a 2003 PBS documentary, “Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History.” This looked at both the events of Watergate and the investigation and hearings before the Senate Watergate Committee. What was eerie about the documentary are the parallels between then and now:

- a president who ignored the public’s growing opposition to a war that should never have been started;

- an expansion of the war either through secret bombing raids or adding additional thousands of troops to the war;

- a presidential assertion of expanded powers to intercept communications of U.S. residents using the “commander-in-chief” clause of the constitution;

- “missing” or irretrievable documents or tapes (the infamous 18 minute gap in the Nixon tapes); and

- the obvious administration stonewalling of Congress.

On the last point, I must concede that as often as Alberto Gonzales could not remember what he did or what he said even though he firmly believed everything done was done properly, the frequency of his memory lapses pale when compared to the 130 times that Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, during his appearance under oath before the Watergate committee, claimed he could not recall events or conversations about Watergate or the cover-up.

Haldeman, unrepentant for his role in subverting justice, went to jail for his role in the planning and cover-up of criminal activity. Alberto Gonzales, by denying any recollection of events surrounding the dismissal of presidential appointees, may well be remembered in the annals of the second George W. Bush administration as one of the nation’s most politically loyal and therefore most ineffective Attorney Generals ever to hold that office.

As disgraceful as Haldeman’s activities were and those of Nixon, in the end justice was served: one man went to jail and the other resigned in disgrace. For Gonzales and Bush, what the outcome is remains unclear. At the very least, however, placing political loyalty above loyalty to the Constitution remains a dangerous threat to the integrity of constitutional processes designed to hold both elected and appointed officials accountable for what they do or fail to do.

In this regard, both president and attorney general ought to refresh their individual memories about two principles of law: The first has its origins in Rome, reads “Ignorantia juris non excusat” – “Ignorance of the law does not excuse.”

The second is known as “willful blindness.” This occurs when a person who should have known that something was or was not done and was in a position to ask the status of a policy or an action but deliberately chose not to ask so that he could deny any knowledge (and responsibility for) an outcome. Such “willful blindness” under the law would be the equivalent of the diplomats “plausible deniability”; both are figments.

And in some locales and justice systems, purposely practicing “willful blindness” is regarded as equivalent to possessing knowledge, for how else would one know what it is that he or she is trying to remain ignorant of?

Which, ironically, leads back to Watergate and committee member Senator Howard Baker’s famous summary question – “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

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